One of the most unlikely events in Mobile’s artistic history, the aptly named Temporal City Festival, is living up to the first word in its title. The collection of inventive installations within Mobile’s forsaken downtown structures will manifest for its fourth year, then exit the stage after a short but heady impact.
“I would rather say this is going to be our last year until further notice than wait until the year we realize ‘oh no, we can’t do this,’ and have to cancel. I’d much rather stop while we’re ahead, and next year we’re going to reassess,” Elizabet Elliott said.
As the wellspring of the Rumor Union, the artists’ collective responsible for the festival, Elliott saw a dangerous pattern evolving. Like many local creative endeavors, it depended more on passion than purchasing power.
“My hope four years ago when we started this was that we would be in a better position for finding funding after a few years and Mobile just isn’t there right now,” Elliott said. “We’re not in a place where people are making new investments in the city and quality of life issues.”
Elliott pointed to the budget deficit as a major factor. Another weighty matter was the resources consumed by the endeavor, all from volunteers.
“Over the years, none of these would have happened without the artists and people that show up and come out-of-pocket and work so hard to get it done, most of all Arts Alive who made it possible all this time,” Elliott said “It’s incredible to have those people showing up year after year and doing crazy amounts of work that they don’t get paid to do. It’s an honor to be involved, but my concern is that if we go on too far in that direction without finding funding or a way to make that labor sustainable, we’re going to burn out our talent. I don’t want to set a precedent of accepting free labor.”
Another unspoken factor worth noting: Elliott was recently named curator of adult education at the Mobile Museum of Art. While the new job provides yet another outlet for her notable energy, it also exacts a price on her time.
This year’s event – April 10-12, during Arts Alive weekend – has changed form in another way. Temporal City previously utilized vacant spaces scattered throughout downtown and participants could join guided tours or purchase a map to explore on their own. The Rumor Union requested a $5 donation for such.
This time around, all the installations will be contained in one notable landmark: the old Scottish Rites Temple at Claiborne and St. Francis streets. The Egyptian-themed building bears its own version of archeological environs not below ground but instead above the familiar central hall used for concerts and events. The donation request remains.
When noted Mobile architect George Bigelow Rogers designed the building for a Masonic order, he included second and third floors rife with secret passages, doors and rooms – even a rooftop ceremonial altar – at the Masons’ behest. Those long-vacated quarters will now be filled with artistic inspiration for the 2014 version of Temporal City.
“We usually have a team of people that volunteer for the install that are runners and our tech crew, and are running our 20 different extension cords all over the city into all these buildings that don’t have power,” Elliott said. “This centralizes our resources and centralizes our crew.”
The new “carnival style” format has other advantages. More than tying together resources it coalesces psyches.
“Although we really love doing it scavenger hunt style, it ends up for the performance artists or the artists that staff their projects being a little bit lonely,” Elliott admitted. “They have runners that bring them food and the tours that come through but other than that, they’re tied to these disparate spaces.”
Elliott’s hope is that the shared experience creates a better bond between the artists, which in turn will affect viewers. “It makes it more accessible as a whole also because they’re together and having the same experience and able to communicate,” she said.
This year’s artists include perennials such as Elliott, Lillian McKinney, the quintet Delta Psychedelica, Colleen Comer, Timothy Dixon and Jillian Crochet. Joining the finale are newcomers Brendan Cooke, Will Fawcett and weaving/textiles/community artist Dixon Stetler of New Orleans.
While the approaching hibernation for Temporal City is bittersweet, it has offered insight into the possibilities dormant in the Azalea City. Elliott is quick to note its unique opportunity for artists who crave something more challenging or “out of the box.”
“There were a lot of people who didn’t think we could do something this experimental and actually have an audience for it in Mobile,” Elliott said. “What we’ve done is quite incredible in that we’ve proven there is an audience for it, we do have the talent for it and the ability to pull these sorts of things off.”
She doesn’t have to look far for the proof. It manifests before her.
“We get such a wide swath of people attending the festival beyond the art elite or art savvy,” Elliott said. “It’s people who may or may not have ever been to an art museum or art gallery. Yet we hear over and over ‘wow, this is like New York City’ or ‘this is like Memphis’ or other bigger cities with thriving art communities.”
Her hope is the impact reverberates for some time to come. Her dream is that it changes our self-image.
“A lot the time we sort of think of Mobile with an idea of scarcity, that we can’t have things that are in the big cities and that’s obviously not true,” Elliott said. “It’s just a matter of investment.”